Sunday, April 29, 2012

From the March of the Living to the March for Life

On the evening of Yom Ha’Atsmaut, Israel Independence Day, I went with a friend to the closing event of the 2012 "March of the Living" in the Latrun amphitheatre, located between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

The March of the Living is an educational program that brings Jewish teens from all over the world to Poland on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. They march from Auschwitz to Birkenau, the largest concentration camp complex built during World War II, and then to Israel to observe Yom HaZikaron (Israel Memorial Day) and Yom Ha'Atzmaut.

According to its website, the March of the Living divides its goals into “universal” and “Jewish” goals.

The universal goals include remembering those who perished in the Holocaust, paying tribute to survivors, recognizing and learning from the actions of the “righteous among the nations,” honoring the veterans of World War II, fighting anti-Semitism and racial discrimination, and inspiring the participants to build a world free of oppression and intolerance, founded upon “freedom, democracy and justice, for all members of the human family.”

The “Jewish goals” of the march include bolstering the Jewish identity of the next generation through learning about the Jewish heritage of pre-war Eastern Europe, understanding the importance of the existence of Israel as spiritual center and homeland of the Jewish people, fostering Jewish unity, and promoting tikkun olam ("repairing the world") and the Jewish people’s responsibility to be a light onto the nations.

All very worthy and noble goals.  Even though I did not participate in the March, at the spectacular closing evening in Latrun I could indeed feel that the participants were bound by what had been a very deep and meaningful time spent together. Beyond the extraordinary performance which combined engaging songs, professional dances and choreographies, impressive pyrotechnics and fireworks, and moving speeches, movie clips and testimonies, there was a graspable sense of unity and purpose among the thousands of young Jewish people who had no doubt experienced an unforgettable two weeks.

One could sense that the shaping of the Jewish nation out of the calamity of the Shoah, through the rebirth and growth of the State of Israel thanks to the sacrifice of so many, was a call to responsibility for the future generations, encapsulated by the evening’s slogan of “embrace the past, grasp the future.”

As I sat there enjoying the show, many thoughts went through my mind.

First, I was struck by the strength that comes from this incredible sense of purpose, dedication and self-sacrifice born out of the Jewish people’s struggle for survival throughout the ages. It’s no wonder, I thought, that Israel has won all the wars launched against them by their Arab enemies - who not only totally lack any sense of common purpose but are often bitter rivals among themselves.

At the same time, it was clear to me how a greater Hand of protection had been upon the people of Israel in protecting them from the foes that have risen and continue to rise against them.

For this reason, I thought it unfortunate and rather sad that the One who is primarily responsible for the survival of the Jewish People, the Shomer Israel who neither slumbers nor sleeps, was more or less left on the sidelines of the evening. With hardly any verbal acknowledgement made to the enduring providence and protection of the God of Israel over His people, I felt that the event left at times a bit of an awkward feeling of self-congratulation – as if the survival and thriving of the Jewish people through history were due to their own tenacity and determination alone.

While aware that the March of the Living is not a “religious event” per se, I could not help but wish that some thanksgiving and praise would have been given to God for His faithfulness to His people – especially now that the dark clouds of new and greater threats are gathering on the horizon of the Jewish nation.

Fortunately, this uneasy feeling was partially relieved with the uplifting performances of some traditional religious Jewish songs, such as Adon Olam (Lord of the Ages), Mashiach (Messiah) and Ein lanu al mi lehisha’en (“We have no one else to lean on but our Father who is in heaven”) – which were my personal highlights of the evening.

I also wished that a dimension of reconciliation would have been better integrated into the event, such as the work done by the much smaller Yad b’Yad initiative, which sends groups of Israelis and Germans together to Germany, Auschwitz, and Israel with the goal of fostering reconciliation, healing and friendships between them. As much as I appreciate the mission of the March of the Living, I felt that its implicit message of “we survived even though everyone is against us, and we want to make sure it doesn’t happen again” fell quite a bit short of Yad b’Yad’s vision of bringing together Germans and Israelis, calling the former to repentance and the latter to forgiveness, healing their respective wounds of guilt and victimization, and leading them to true friendship and unity between Jew and Gentile.

Of course, since such a vision of the “one new man” is grounded in the work of reconciliation accomplished by Yeshua the Messiah of Israel and Prince of Peace, it is probably unrealistic to expect it from a Jewish organization that does not accept Him as Messiah and Savior. Still, one may hope for this vision of true reconciliation to come to pass in the future, since it is an integral part of Israel's calling and vocation as announced by the ancient prophets.

Finally, while admiring the March of the Living event, I could not help but think of its quasi-namesake the “March for Life” - the annual pro-life rally that draws some 250,000 participants in Washington D.C. every year with the goal of overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in America.

The March of the Living and March for Life.  I thought of the “Great Disconnect” between Israel and the Church: How many Jews at the event in Latrun even know what is the March for Life?  How many of my Catholic friends in the U.S. even know what is the March of the Living?

The March of the Living and March for Life.  Two holocausts.  6 millions Jews in Europe from 1941 to 1945 (average 1.5 million a year).  Over 54 million unborn - in America alone - from 1973 to 2011 (average 1.4 million a year).

The March of the Living and March for Life.  Two celebrations of life. One group marching to celebrate the life that came out of the ashes of the Shoah seventy years ago, having survived a mad criminal regime and a nation that had killed its own conscience. One group marching to protect the life of future generations, threatened today by a culture of selfishness that has also killed its conscience in tolerating the legal wholesale slaughter of millions of innocents for the sake of “choice.”

The March of the Living and March for Life...  and a chilling question: of all those Jews who take pride in celebrating the victory of life over death at the March of the Living, how many simultaneously choose the side of death when it comes to today's silent genocide of the unborn?  After all, it is known that a majority of Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and secular Jews are aligned with the so-called "reproductive choice" camp, with not a few Jews being even leaders in the pro-abortion movement.  Survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants, and at the same time accomplices in the greatest modern-day Holocaust.  A chilling thought indeed.

May the people at the March for Life in Washington D.C. be inspired by the heritage, memory and mission of the March of the Living. But more importantly, may those participants in the March of the Living also fight for life in the battle that is taking place before their very eyes today. God forbid that those whose ancestors survived a Holocaust become accomplices of another. May they "embrace the past and grasp the future" by joining the cause of the March for Life.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Memory and Independence: From Death to Life

Just a week after the siren sounded throughout Israel to mark Holocaust Memorial day, it sounded again twice on Tuesday April 25 at 8 PM and the following morning at 11 AM to commemorate Yom Hazikaron, Remembrance Day.  During these two moments of silence and throughout the day, Israelis remembered the 22,293 men and women who died defending the land of Israel since 1860, when the first Jewish settlers began to build new neighborhoods outside of the old city of Jerusalem.  In the past year alone, 126 members of the security forces were killed.

In his message to the bereaved families of Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who lost his brother Yonatan in 1976 in the Entebbe rescue operation in Uganda – said the following words:

“After Remembrance Day, the State of Israel will celebrate its 64th birthday. The unbreakable bond between Remembrance Day and Independence Day underscores the fact that our dear ones who fell in Israel's wars did not fall in vain. Thanks to them, the State arose. Thanks to them, the State of Israel will continue to develop and prosper, and thanks to them the members of the younger generation will also be able to live their lives in security and tranquility.”

On the afternoon of Memorial Day my friend Shosha invited me to come to the national cemetery on Mount Herzl and join the tributes to her brother, the late Yehudah Greenfield, who was killed in action in the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

In a recollected and sad, yet peaceful atmosphere, families and friends gather around the graves of the fallen, reciting psalms and singing songs.  Warm handshakes or hugs are exchanged, along with words of encouragement and light conversation.  Some stand or sit in silence, quietly weeping in front of the tomb of their loved ones.

I walk around in silence, reading the inscriptions in Hebrew on the tombstones, all marked with the emblem of the IDF.  20 years old, killed in Gaza.  23 years old, killed in Lebanon.  19 years old, killed in a bombing attack in Jerusalem.  21 years old, killed while performing her duty.

Just a few steps away, a fresh heap of earth covered with flowers marks the grave of the most recent victim, Lieutenant Hila Betzaleli, who was killed a week earlier when a lighting structure collapsed onto the stage at Mount Herzl during a rehearsal for the Independence Day opening ceremony.

At sunset, mourning turns into dancing as Memorial Day turns into the eve of Yom HaAtsma’ut – Israeli Independence Day and the nation’s 64th birthday.  In Jerusalem, the city comes alive with evening concerts, celebrations, parties, and a mix of traditional Jewish and modern dancing at Safra Square.

For me, such a personal experience of Memorial Day drove home the words of the Prime Minister:  spending the day with a bereaved friend and her family at the Mount Herzl cemetery certainly gives a very different meaning to the celebrations of Independence Day.  In the wake of the extermination of six million Jews in Europe, followed by countless wars and two intifadas, the price paid for the birth and survival of the State of Israel in these past 64 years has indeed been a heavy one, marked with much blood and tears and thanks to the sacrifice of many young men and women.

I cannot help but think at the deep interconnection between the mystery of Israel and mystery of Christ.  Death and resurrection.  Sacrifice for the sake of new life.  Thank you to the brave young men and women who gave their lives for their nation.  You have given your people a reason to be proud, and a reason to cherish Israel’s independence with special gratefulness. May their memory be blessed. And happy birthday Israel!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Israeli Students Talk about the Holocaust

It’s 10 AM on Thursday, April 19, and sirens are sounding all over Israel.   It’s not an air raid drill, but the nation-wide commemoration of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day.  For two minutes, the country comes to a standstill as people interrupt their activities and stand in silence while the sirens wail.  It’s an eerie sight to see the traffic completely stopped on the roads and highways, with drivers coming out of their cars and standing in silent reverence to remember the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

Headlines in the Hebrew newspapers on Yom Hashoah

On the eve of Yom HaShoah, the main commemoration ceremony took place at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, attended by President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  During the ceremony, six holocaust survivors lit six torches representing the six million victims.  In his speech, Netanyahu emphasized the need to learn from the past in order to secure the nation’s future:

“Our enemies tried to bury the Jewish future but our future was born again in the land of our forefathers.  Here we built a base, and a new beginning of freedom, and hope and action.”

Netanyahu also issued a sobering reminder that the Jewish people still faces an existential threat today in Iran’s repeated calls to “exterminate the Jewish State.”  The Prime Minister said that the Iranian threat is a danger not only to Israel but also to world peace:  "It is the world’s responsibility to stop Iran securing nuclear weapons" said Netanyahu.

For me as a Christian, it’s always a bit surreal to experience Yom Hashoah in Israel.  For the younger generations in the West who grew up in an unprecedented time of peace, the Second World War and the Holocaust seem to belong to the distant past – terrible days now relegated to the history books.  But for the Jewish people and nation of Israel, the Holocaust is still an open wound and a call to vigilance.

I was present on Thursday at a brief but moving Holocaust commemoration service on the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, attended by several hundred students, faculty and staff.  The function began with a recitation of the “Yizkor” prayer (“may [God] remember”), followed by speeches, memorial songs and poems.  The ceremony ended with everyone singing accapella the Israeli national anthem, “HaTikvah” (“The Hope”).

The memorial ceremony at Hebrew University

I asked a few students what were their thoughts and feelings on this day.

“When I was in high school, I travelled to Poland,” says Avigal, “but from year to year I feel less connected to those tragic events.  This makes me a bit sad, but it’s good that we have these kinds of memorial services; they help you to understand the importance of every day.”

Yonatan agrees: “it’s still very hard to grasp these things and speak about them.  Even when I was in Poland and in Auschwitz, it was hard to grasp what happened there, so it’s even harder here.”

I asked Yonathan what he thought is the role of Israel and the Jewish people today to prevent such events from happening again.

“First of all, we need to ensure that our own behavior and actions are right,” he said, “and then we must make sure that those who suffer from anti-Semitism in the world have a safe place and refuge here in Israel if they want to come here.”

Noga Cohen feels a close connection to the Holocaust, as well as a moral obligation to be learnt from it: “It really shaped my own identity, because I am the granddaughter of a survivor and my mother is a Holocaust scholar.  I’m glad that this day spurs us on to reflect on how to build a better future, and on the importance of fighting against racism in Israeli society.”

Her friend Tom adds: “There are many lessons to learn beyond our own identity as Jews.  On the one hand, it’s not the only genocide that occurred in history; on the other hand, for us we experience its meaning as a people, with implications on the existence of the State of Israel.  There are differences and similarities between the holocaust and other tragic events that happened in history, and I think we need to keep in mind both aspects.”

Noga and Tom

A few steps away, two religious students provided a different perspective.  Rafi tells me that he is troubled at the recent politicization of the Holocaust:

“In recent years, the society has been instrumentalizing the Holocaust for different purposes: the right has used it to warn us against Iran, and the left relates it to the racism of some Jews against Ethiopians and Arabs.  These are important topics, but I don’t agree in relating them to the Shoah, because it was a unique event in history.  I think we need to separate the commemoration from the lessons that need to be learned.  The Shoah is a sacred topic that used to be apolitical and unifying, but now it has become political and divisive.”

Benny and Rafi

Rafi’s friend Benny then explains his own personal connection to the Shoah:

“Both grandparents on my father’s side survived the Holocaust in Auschwitz and Mauthausen, and all members of their families were killed.  This past remained with us in our family, and so you could say that this day is half sacred for us.  On a national level, it’s something ungraspable, both in the scope and amplitude of the evil that was behind it.”

But why did this happen precisely to the Jewish people?

“I think the Jewish people have a certain calling that no other nation has, and this really bothered the Nazis.  I think the Jewish people brought a certain morality to the world that Hitler didn’t want.

And how should we relate to the Shoah today? “First, by remembering this day” says Benny.  “Second, by perpetuating the characteristics and calling of the Jewish people, precisely in the places where they were not wanted – being a light to the gentiles in a moral way – and for this we still have much work to do.  It’s a good day for us to do some soul searching, to improve ourselves for next year, to perpetuate and justify our existence.

The Yizkor Prayer for Martyrs

May the L-rd remember
the souls of the holy and pure ones
who were killed, murdered, slaughtered, burned, drowned, and strangled
for the sanctification of the Name,
because, without making a vow, I shall give to charity on their behalf.
As reward for this,
may their souls be bound in the Bond of Life,
together with the souls of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob;
Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah;
and together with the other righteous men and women in the Garden of Eden.